Review Summary: Hot Cross stuns again, but this time the instrumentals are slightly stripped down and rugged while the vocals are the haymaker.
Originally Posted by Fortune Teller
Fuck not lest ye be fucked
For most fans of Hot Cross and similar bands these lyrics have a strong, lingering power. Billy Werner, lead vocalist of Hot Cross and Saetia, is typically known for his caustic and intelligent lyrics, and he typically them with conviction and force. These lyrics are on "Fortune Teller," the first track on 2003's Cryonics
, which until now, was Hot Cross' only LP, are pretty bombastic and this attitude does a good job of summing up the album as a whole. Hot Cross pushed the genre of hardcore, and more specifically emo, into a new frontier. This new territory included faster, more original guitar lines, cooler bass resolutions, and faster and more interesting drums, all while writing tight and catchy songs, which made Cryonics
a singular and rare album, and is the main reason it's considered so highly now, almost four years later. During these four years between LPs, Hot Cross only released one EP, Fair Trades and Farewells
, which seemed to push boundaries even further, with even more crazy contrapuntal guitar (see "Prepare / Repair" at 1:37 and "Better a Corspe Than a Nun" at about 0:33), odd time signatures, and shouted lyrics. And while these technical aspects were a great addition, I feel like while the ended started off on a really strong note, really ends up lagging on the final two tracks because of inferior songwriting and repetition.
Fast forward to early 2006 (or was it late 2005) when Hot Cross posted demos of "Existence" and "Rejoinder" on their myspace. These songs were cool yet subtly different thanks to the loss of a guitarist and slightly different take on songwriting. They were soon taken down and Hot Cross recorded them for an album called Risk Revival
. This recording hasn't and probably will never be released. The band scrapped that recording because it didn't turn out the way they wanted it to and didn't really represent how hard they had worked on it. Fast forward to 2007, and here we are. Risk Revival
has been rerecorded and now released as of Tuesday the 20th. The obvious question after Fair Trades
is "Is the album continuing the trend of getting more technical?" Tracing a line from A New Set of Lungs
through Fair Trades
would suggest this prpgressive approach, but one fewer band member and the demos suggest otherwise. To kill the suspense, they've gone for the latter scenario. Risk Revival
is much less alienating and technical than Fair Trades
and isn't as spruced up with production as Cryonics
. Hell, the lyrics and vocals aren't as visceral as they were on A New Set of Lungs
. So, how does this album succeed? "Fuc
k not lest ye be fuc
With maybe the exception of "Cardiac Silence" there isn't a bad song on this album. This overall quality of composition stems from the songwriting, and particularly Billy's role in the band. I mentioned in my review of Cryonics
that every Hot Cross song has amazing musical moments (especially in terms of guitar riffs) that will just slay you. One thing lacking on a grand scale from their previous releases is, excepting "Fortune Teller," the vocal moments that were awesome couldn't trump the awesome musical moments. Every single song has at least one vocal moment that will be burned into your memory. Starting off with "Exits and Trails" we receive the wonderful "...that makes my spirit shake." "Turncoat Revolution" has "I've never met a traitor I didn't like / Never criticized a turncoat written off in spite" and "Blood on my shoes." These vocal moments last all the way through the final track "Scrape Wisdom" with "This is what you owe the dead / Again and again." And it's not just the fact that the lyrics are awesome and memorable inherently, but they are also delivered in an amazing way. "...that makes my spirit shake" is delivered with tantamount conviction and a back-of-the-throat shout that seems to achieve what the lyrics claim. "I've never meet a traitor..." is practically spit with its crisp, clipped fashion that whips at the listener. This is a testament to Werner's vocal performance, which has transformed a lot for this album. Other than being more diverse in the first place with less uniform screaming and more singing, shouting, and spoken word stuff, on a holistic level Werner's voice sounds more youthful and desperate. On previous albums, there was a definite sneer that tied in well with the lyrics. Now, there's a very hopeful quality to his vocals, that when combined with the fact that he doesn't cut any corners in terms of intensity, is really uplifting. Overall, the vocals seem more like the vocals of a new straight-forward hardcore band than an older emo band.
In step with this shift towards a more youthful, hardcore sound are the other instruments. Everybody seems more concerned with rocking out than with shredding, which is a welcome change despite how much we all enjoy amazing technical work. The remaining guitarist, Casey (they lost Josh), does a good job of balancing the gaps in his department. He has a penchant for alternating between really thick and heavy power chords, lighter faster moving mid-range chords, and faster moving riffs in upper registers. His playing is like a freeform colotomy, which is really cool. Also, there are a lot of cool pentatonic and and rock-sounding riffs on this album that suit the more stripped sound on this album, and give the album part of its newer, more hardcore sound. The bass seems to have taken a more flowing, riff-based approach to its playing, which has led to a much greater sonic presence on this album. For a perfect example of this, listen to the undulating bass lines all over "Exits and Trails." This density of bass really helps flesh out the sound in general and contributes to the overall meatiness of the music. The drumming is a mixed bag. At times it feels like it sits on a classic triplets on 2 and 4 accents found in many emo songs, particularly earlier Hot Cross songs, but this time around there's also a lot of straight punk beats, and decidedly "non-rock" beats. I'm not saying there's some kind of weird hip hop of jazz influence but rather there are a lot of beats in calmer sections that are decidedly neutral and don't pigeonhole the sound into any given section. The part in "Turncoat Revolution" with the lyrics "behold the youth" has a really upbeat drum pulse that could be the beat in a snippy pop song or even a funk fill. Overall though, the drums seem to trend towards this more punk beats overall.
Whether you're wild or not about the slightly different sound of the band, there are some truly well-written songs here. Their design is complicated and fresh enough to be challenging but not so abstruse that they cease to be catchy. Also, the album wouldn't succeed as a whole if it weren't for the way the songs work together. There seems to be a lot more diversity this time around. In previous efforts the only way to change up the sound was to insert a song with a huge slow, clean-tone part ("A Tale for the Ages," "Consonants"). On Risk Revival
Hot Cross seem to have songs that are much more singalong and anthemic ("Fire the Foundations" has straight up gang vocals), much more simple ("Cardiac Silence" begins with some fun repeated power chords), or much more epic, bashing, and slow song ("Silence Is Failure" does a great impression of Isis for its brief 2:45 time). There's a variety to Risk Revival
that hasn't been present before. This too could alienate older fans, but I think it does a good job of distinguishing each individual song. Also, the production value here is really nice. Cryonics
had a lot of goofy effects and while at the time it sounded cool and crazy, the effects they used haven't aged very well. This album is really meat-and-potatoes about its tonal aspirations. They never move outside the box, but the box they stay in is really solid.
Putting all of these pieces together, what is the end result? Risk Revival
is a pretty great album. It doesn't have the musical or instrumental stunners that Cryonics
did, and overall feels simpler, but Werner really stepped up his performance to make Risk Revival
a visceral, strong album nonetheless. There's a youthful surge to its style that makes it immediately likable, but there's something lacking that makes repeated listens pale next to the completeness of Cryonics
. If anything it's an excellent next step for Hot Cross who find ways to subtly redirect themselves, all while remaining godly in their genre. Hot Cross is still, after all these years, a punch in the face. Their music is quick, furious, and really satisfying.